Thursday, June 25, 2009

Transformers: Reaction to the Fallen

My initial ardor with the original live-action Transformers film has receded upon repeated viewings. The novelty of the robots-as-eye-candy has worn off some, and the mildly cringe-inducing bits of attempted levity and cleverness are even more cringe-worthy. Unlike a film like X-Men, which is smart enough to be enjoyable after the special effects have stopped being nifty, Transformers, like The Rock, like The Island, like so many ex-girlfriends, makes a great hot, wild first impression, but if you keep it around for very long you start to see the problems with its worldview and get annoyed by its jokes.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is everything the first one was, only more: it's bigger, longer, louder, 'splodier ("SPLOW-dee-yer", adj., more explody). It was pretty dumb, but I didn't feel like it was nearly as dumb as its predecessor, but don't misunderstand, it was still pretty dumb. I gotta be honest, though--I've read the reviews and I was not expecting a real dog of a film, but I didn't hate it. It's not a good movie, but it's not an awful one. It's certainly not for everyone, but it has an audience--I'll get to that in a bit. Let's start with the things that worked.

The combat worked. It was frantic and chaotic, but it had a certain logic and rhythm to it. There was less tumble-and-roll-and-shoot than before, projectile weapons were used at a distance, melee combat up close. Vehicle forms were used for mobility and covering distance at speed as well as setting traps and operating stealthily. Robot forms were used for maneuverability and combat. The story at least paid homage to the mythology of the series, and it sort of worked. The archaeological tie-in was ill-advised, but it was far more believable than the most recent Indiana Jones movie. The other thing that I thought was fairly nifty was that they would cannibalize each other for parts. Seeing a handful of Decepticons turn on one of their own to revive their leader gave them a ruthless edge that was a little disturbing--in a good way.

The other thing that I really have to credit Michael Bay (the director) with is that he did a far better job of making important robots distinguishable in this movie. In the first film, two of the Autobots and all but two of the Decepticons looked way, way too similar to be distinguished at a distance. In this one it was far easier to identify major characters, while the blending-together-ness was reserved for the myriad Decepticon drones that showed up at the finish. Although would it kill you to tell us their names?

So what didn't work? Well, there's plenty to criticize: it hinges on a very underwhelming love story, it's rude, often incoherent, littered with blatant product placement, becomes an army recruitment film from time to time, et al. You know, the normal run of Bay weaknesses. But the biggest problem is this: the running time, the running time, the running time. It dragged on, even with all the pulse-pounding action, far too long. The second act ended on such a low note that this easily could have been two movies in the vein of The Matrix's sequels. Perhaps that's not the best example, but cramming this much story into a single movie was a mistake, keeping in mind that the story is the sticky stuff between action-bricks in a Bay film. And the bits of human drama didn't really work. Neither was I a fan of the overly exaggerated characterizations of Wheelie or Scalpel, or the twins.

...It would be remiss of me to not mention "The Twins" here...

They might as well have been called the Negrobots. They were patently offensive racial charicatures, big-eared, gold-toothed, illiterate do-nothings with blaccents. Michael Bay has acknowledged that they are offensive but defends it because "the kids love it". And as much as I hate to admit it, he's right. As offensive as these characters are, the packed audience I watched this movie with loved them, laughed at them, cheered them on. Say what you want about the quality of his film-making, he has identified his audience of 12-17 year old boys and nailed their tastes, and will make a fortune off them. I sat in a sold-out house that seethed testosterone and laughed at every ball joke and swooned over Megan Fox.

These are the people who will find the plot devices compelling, who will think of starting college without a car and saying "I love you" to a girl to be sources of real drama. They aren't bothered by the movies self-importance or casual disregard for geography. To them, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is like Red Bull on celluloid.

All that said, I have some advice for Michael Bay:

  • It's seriously time to move out of the frat house.
  • Hating America is not the only trait that makes a bad guy bad.
  • Whether it works or not, a white, wealthy, forty-something gentile exploiting racial stereotypes for gags is in bad taste.
  • GIVE YOUR CHARACTERS NAMES!!!
  • But, keep blowin' shit up, man.

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